Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh inscribed right: Aetatis suae 34 An(no) 1588 ("In the year 1588 of his age 34") and left: with his motto Amore et Virtute ("By Love and Virtue"). National Portrait Gallery, London
Arms of Raleigh family: Gules, five fusils conjoined in bend argent
Sir Walter Raleigh (i/; c. 1552 (or 1554) – 29 October 1618), also spelled Ralegh, was an English landed gentleman, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer. He was cousin to Sir Richard Grenville and younger half-brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He is also well known for popularising tobacco in England.
In 1594, Raleigh heard of a "City of Gold" in South America and sailed to find it, publishing an exaggerated account of his experiences in a book that contributed to the legend of "El Dorado". After Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, Raleigh was again imprisoned in the Tower, this time for being involved in the Main Plot against King James I, who was not favourably disposed towards him. In 1616, he was released to lead a second expedition in search of El Dorado. During the expedition, men led by his top commander ransacked a Spanish outpost, in violation of both the terms of his pardon and the 1604 peace treaty with Spain. Raleigh returned to England and, to appease the Spanish, he was arrested and executed in 1618.
Little is known about Raleigh's birth. Some historians believe that he was born on 22 January 1552, although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography currently favours a date of 1554. He grew up in the house of Hayes Barton, a farmhouse near the village of East Budleigh, not far from Budleigh Salterton in Devon. He was the youngest of five sons born to Walter Raleigh or Rawleigh (1510–1581) of Fardel Manor, South Hams, Devon, and Catherine Champernowne in the second of both of their marriages. His half-brothers John Gilbert, Humphrey Gilbert, and Adrian Gilbert, and his full brother Carew Raleigh were also prominent during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Catherine Champernowne was a niece of Kat Ashley, Elizabeth's governess, who introduced the young men at court.
Raleigh's family was highly Protestant in religious orientation and had a number of near escapes during the reign of Roman Catholic Queen Mary I of England. In the most notable of these, his father had to hide in a tower to avoid execution. As a result, Raleigh developed a hatred of Roman Catholicism during his childhood, and proved himself quick to express it after Protestant Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558. In matters of religion, Elizabeth was more moderate than her half sister Mary.
In 1569, Raleigh left for France to serve with the Huguenots in the French religious civil wars. In 1572, Raleigh was registered as an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford, but he left a year later without a degree. Raleigh proceeded to finish his education in the Inns of Court. In 1575, he was registered at the Middle Temple. At his trial in 1603, he stated that he had never studied law. His life is uncertain between 1569 and 1575, but in his History of the World he claimed to have been an eyewitness at the Battle of Moncontour (3 October 1569) in France. In 1575 or 1576, Raleigh returned to England.